Two Tuesdays ago was a day of wild extremes for everyone in the Lowcountry. Some of us in Charleston, like my husband, had been keeping a close eye on Hurricane Matthew as it wreaked havoc in the Caribbean. He’d planned to fly to the West Coast that day, and realized a couple of days before that he might have to alter — if not cancel — his plans. As for me, I didn’t really pay attention to Matthew’s potential impact on our coast until that morning, when I walked my son and dog to school. I’d run into an old friend whom I’d only seen a handful of times since she’d moved from Columbia.
“Can you feel it?” she asked. “The storm’s coming. All the birds are flying in the opposite direction.”
She was right, and as I noticed this it added to an uncomfortable feeling that had been growing since I’d left the house half an hour earlier. I’d overslept a bit, so when it was time to hoof it to school I didn’t change the shirt I’d slept in. I didn’t even notice which T-shirt I was wearing.
Our route to school takes us past the carpool line at Buist Academy. Most days the dog pulls us along excitedly while we exchange waves of mutual recognition with the parents we see every day. Usually a couple of windows roll down for drivers to say hello to us or the dog — even from parents I haven’t met. Charleston is a dog-friendly town, and I love how my Arthur has literally pulled me into conversations with people who’ve become friends and acquaintances.
But Oct. 4 was different. The only smile or wave from the line came from someone I know fairly well. When I saw the faces of most of the strangers who typically give warm smiles or ask if we’ve found a groomer we like, I saw wide eyes and grim mouths behind tightly shut, tinted windows. I couldn’t figure out why people were acting as if I was about to carjack them until I got to the end of the line. That’s when a woman gave me an enthusiastic thumbs up and what seemed like a fist pump. Finally, I looked down at my shirt. It was a red tee with an image of a raised black fist that activist and blogger Luvvie Ajayi had designed leading up to the grand jury deliberations that ended with the announcement that there was insufficient evidence to indict officer Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.
You may remember that 2014 was an extremely tumultuous year. I’d met Ajayi at the ONE Campaign AYA Summit at Google’s Washington D.C. headquarters that October, where a group of writers, bloggers, and journalists were brought together for a crash course in issues facing women and girls in the developing world. The official topics included things like the Ebola crisis, human sex trafficking, and economic empowerment in developing countries, but even as we were meeting with State Department officials and a handful of Chibok girls who’d escaped their Boko Haram kidnappers, the conversation periodically turned to the uneasy state of race relations here in the United States. It was a situation ripe for building long-term relationships supporting each other’s professional endeavors and activism, so when Ajayi — whose book I’m Judging You: The Do-Better Manual was released last month to great acclaim — started selling this shirt, most of us bought a couple.
I was still living in Columbia at the time, and one of the organizer’s of the city’s Christmas parade asked if I would walk in the parade wearing the shirt. I said yes, not knowing what to expect given regional and national tensions. What happened? Not much. A couple of high fives. A few fists raised by people of different races in recognition of the fact that black lives should and do matter. That’s it. After that the shirt became a part of my normal wardrobe. A statement piece, but a statement that was understood to be as obvious as it was necessary in my little bubble of a world.
I’d like to attribute the looks of shock (and some of fear) I received that Tuesday to worry over the impending storm, but as the day progressed I knew differently. Some of the looks I got were downright hateful, and one guy even asked me if wearing the shirt meant I was going to “tear shit up and burn it all down.”
That afternoon I received an assignment from another outlet to take some social media pictures of the peninsula’s preparation for the storm. Before setting off around sunset, I reluctantly changed my outfit, not due to the shock and fear it inspired, but because I don’t typically wear the same shirt so many hours in a row. Walking around with iPhone and camera, it was like my outward appearance was that of a completely different person. Neighbors and strangers cheerfully shouted hellos and “be safe with this storm!” All the things I love about walking around where I live suddenly returned.
Clearly, now that I once again looked like a non-feather ruffling neighbor with a relaxed modern chic (as a friend calls it) sartorial look, I could be part of the peninsula again.